This post was originally published as part of a symposium on Notice & Comment about William Araiza’s Rebuilding Expertise: Creating Effective and Trustworthy Regulation in an Age of Doubt. All posts from this symposium can be found here. Reprinted with permission.
The American public has lost faith in expertise. The reason why, as author and national security expert Tom Nichols points out in his 2017 book The Death of Expertise, includes the transformation of the news industry into a 24-hour entertainment machine, the number of “low-information voters,” political leaders who traffic in “alternative facts,” and, as Nichols puts it, a “Google-fueled, Wikipedia-based, blog-sodden collapse of any division between professionals and lay people, students and teachers, knowers and wonderers — in other words between those of any achievement in an area and those with none at all.”
Bill Araiza offers another important insight in his book, Rebuilding Expertise: Increasing legal and political efforts to oversee agencies have resulted in the deterioration of civil service expertise and, with it, of public faith in government. On the front end, these efforts send a message that expertise can’t be trusted. On the back end, when the government stumbles in carrying out its functions, the message is that experts are not so expert after all. What is missed, as Liz Fisher and I contend in our book, Administrative Competence, is that law and politics can hold agencies accountable and still facilitate their capacity to do their job. Araiza’s last chapter ably discusses how this can be done.
There is another significant reason for the loss of trust in government and its expertise. Simply, government does not work for many people the way it once did.
Government investments made during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration created a vibrant and growing post-war boom economy, a vast middle class and, the “great compression” of the 1950s, a period marked by historically low economic inequality, historically high social mobility, and a stunning 70 percent level of public trust in government. Today, income and wealth inequality in the United States are substantially higher than in virtually all other developed nations. And, not by accident, trust in government has fallen to a historic low of 20 percent.
Forgetting Lincoln’s lesson
What happened? The country forgot Abraham Lincoln’s insight that a leading object of government is “is to elevate the condition of men; to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life.” The effort to minimize government not only replaced Lincoln’s vision, but it also led to endorsing globalization while overlooking its disastrous distributional impacts.
“Free” trade is impeccable economics because nations specialize in those industries in which they have a competitive advantage. Those who participate in what our country does best — knowledge industries including law, finance, medicine, and computer technology — have done quite well in the last decades. As our gross national product grew and the country became richer overall, the spoils went to the wealthiest Americans, who were then aided by major laws that cut taxes – and disproportionately benefited them.”
At the same time, globalization left in its wake deindustrialization and misery. Economic winners could have invested some of their treasure in creating new opportunities for those who have not benefitted from the internationalization of trade, but, alas, they didn’t.
The result: a “great paradox,” as sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explains in Strangers in Their Own Land, her book about the American political right. Drawing on deep conversations with Louisianans who would benefit from strong environmental protection but who nonetheless oppose it, Hochschild finds that these Americans see themselves standing in line as they work toward the great American Dream but perceive the line as at a standstill because “others” are cutting in front of them: people of color, women, immigrants, refugees, even the natural environment. Government, in their view, cares about creating selective opportunities, but not for them.
Conservative politicians have fueled this antigovernment populism with their message that the lack of opportunity is the fault of educated elites, the “libs,” and experts who do not care equally for all who struggle. Former First Lady Hillary Clinton’s infamous description on the 2016 campaign trail of some of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables” gave this claim credence. In her view, Clinton’s deplorables were Trump supporters who were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it.”
But Clinton also saw another “basket” of Trump supporters; those “who feel that government has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they are just desperate for change.” This group, she said, feeds on the hope that “they won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end.”
These perceptions will only intensify if markets are left to operate on their own in the new green economy. As the country reduces carbon emissions, thousands of new jobs will emerge — and many more than that will be lost because of government regulations that will be needed to help us mitigate climate change and adapt to a warming planet. Many of those who lose jobs, however, will likely not get the new ones. This job loss will disproportionally harm those on the lower end of the income scale. Based on their representation in today’s fossil-fuel industry, we can expect such job losses to affect whites, Hispanics (white and non-white), and Black Americans in significant numbers.
Biden resumes government support
In response to this reality and longer-term trends, the Biden administration has enacted the largest investment in infrastructure, climate, science and technology in a generation,
resuming the government’s long history of promoting economic opportunity, which dates back to Alexander Hamilton. In fact, the White House said its inspiration for the infrastructure bill was Hamilton’s 1791 “Report on Manufactures,” which called for the creation of a vibrant industrial sector. Several major corporations have responded by announcing plans to construct new manufacturing plants in various parts of the country.
Citizen distrust of government became the norm when the country embraced globalization and abandoned its commitment to promote a “fair chance in the race of life.” Given the results, the loss of faith in government is to be expected. Instead of relying on expertise to find ways to embrace globalization and create a fair economic transition, the country reverted to a “winner take all” market philosophy. To achieve another “great compression,” we must put agency expertise to use to create a fairer economy and, to do that, we must restore faith in government.